Devin Booker understood — even before the team plane back from the Finals in Milwaukee touched the ground in Phoenix — what had to come next.
“One of the first conversations I had with Book, on the plane back from Milwaukee, was about the details,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “I said, ‘What’d you learn?’ And the first word out of his mouth was ‘details.'”
Seared into him and his teammates through the heartache of losing in the Finals, Booker saw it was the little mistakes — on the second and third defensive rotation, or not forcing a specific player left, or not boxing out to make sure your team gets a critical rebound — that made all the difference. The pain in Williams’ gut from the loss told him the same thing. Chris Paul got it, too.
That leadership trio made sure the entire Suns team understood this season was about getting the details right from Day 1.
“We have to admit that the finals opened our eyes to the importance of it all,” Williams said. “Coaches talk about it, but we fail in it also. I think when we went through the Finals experience, it allowed for our guys to say these are the things, if we’re going to get to the next level, we not just have to take them seriously, we have to apply it every single day.
“From the time I got there, all our players were all about the details, but we’re all human. And when you get to certain moments, things tend to wane. Well, you can’t have that happen when you get to the playoffs.”
The buy-in and focus from the players is evident in the 48-10 record that is six-and-a-half games better than the league’s second-best team (Golden State).
The mission the Suns have been on this season reminds the team’s believers of the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs — after a gut punch Finals loss to the Heat punctuated by Ray Allen’s iconic corner 3, those Spurs came back and were not going to be denied a season later.
Williams said he had shown his young team footage of Allen’s 3-pointer — but not to compare it to their situation. Again, it was about how the details — not boxing out Chris Bosh, allowing him to get the rebound off a LeBron James miss and pass it to Allen in the corner — made all the difference.
“We showed them the footage of that [last season]… We were just talking about rebounding, and how the little things can cost you a game. Didn’t have a clue we would be up in the Finals 2-0 then lose four in a row,” Williams said, adding his young guys know that footage now.
However, Williams — who came out of the Spurs coaching tree — is not fond of comparing his guys to Duncan, Parker and Ginobili right now.
“That [Spurs] team was a different team, they had already won championships,” Williams said. “We’re trying to win our first.”
What these Suns and those Spurs share is a focus on the little things born from Finals’ pain.
“Our thing as a team, especially adding a couple new pieces this year, was to work on the details….” Booker said All-Star weekend. “I feel like that’s what the regular season is for. Even in your wins and your losses, still trying to get better and still remaining healthy for when that time comes and when the postseason comes.
“Coach stressing little details that you think isn’t a big deal at the time but can cost you a game in the Playoffs, and you’re never going to want that.”
That attention to the details and the depth of the Suns will be tested with Paul out for most, if not all, of the rest of the regular season due to a thumb fracture.
Paul said he believed “if I do miss some time, I know the guys gonna hold it down.” At the heart of that belief is continuity with this roster that allows them to focus on the details and building good habits rather than getting to know each other on the court (like several other contenders).
“We said it all preseason, the biggest advantage we have coming into the season was our continuity. Then we started off the season 1-3, and I’m sure everybody was like, ‘that’s some bull,'” Chris Paul said with a laugh. “But it still is our advantage right now, is that we know each other. We’ve had some heartache together.
“So when we in these, I know they’re just regular season games, but I feel like those regular season games prepare you for the long run. Of course, everybody always say, ‘it’s just the regular season.’ We shouldn’t even play the regular season then. I think our team, we just continue to build, and all you want to do is have a chance, and we know we have a chance.”
Booker enjoyed his time in Cleveland as an All-Star, he said he wanted to savor a couple of days away. But as the Suns come back together for the season’s final sprint, he said this is a team that knows the mission.
“I think that expectation [of returning to the Finals], regardless of our record or not, is going to be there after falling short last year, going through what we went through last year,” Booker said. “I mean, I’d be lying to you if I said that wasn’t our goal from the beginning of the season, but I think we do a good job at celebrating these moments and celebrating the streaks that we’ve been on, at the same time understanding what the mission is and what we’re ultimately trying to do…
“It’s just a whole chemistry and aura about the team that we’re still trying to build on for later in the season, but so far, so good.”
So far, the Suns are getting the details right.